Back in Brendan Rodgers’ heyday at Celtic when the grass was greener than ever, there was only one man who could supersede his popularity; Neil Lennon could walk into any Celtic function and be guaranteed a welcome that outstripped that afforded to anyone else in the room such was the affection he was held in by the club support.
Quite what he genuinely makes of it all now as he drives into Lennoxtown with the same support unveiling banners demanding his sacking or social media campaigns deriding his managerial nous is anyone’s guess.
But in a season in which he has fought fires on all fronts, Lennon cannot be accused of hiding. A football manager, especially at Celtic or Rangers in such circumstances, does not tend to find release in front of an assembled press corps. There has been no attempt to relinquish media duties this season despite finding himself fighting on multiple fronts as civil war has ripped through the club in the wake of the Parkhead side’s failed ten-in-a-row campaign.
Amid the scrutiny, however, Lennon believes that there has been an over-stepping of the mark, something that Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes and Hibs manager Jack Ross have also had cause to bristle about this season. And one particular pre-match interview rankled with Lennon.
“I had a 23-question interview 30 minutes before the Livingston game – 23,” said Lennon. “Then I was accused of walking away. That created a totally wrong narrative. I was there, answered every question as best I could and still the narrative was: ‘Oh, he’s stormed off’. It’s absolute rubbish. And nothing gets done about it.
“We [as managers]don’t talk about it collectively. It’s just observationally how the interviewing techniques have dramatically changed, particularly this season on certain managers. It’s certainly not right. Pre-empting answers, being aggressive, talking about people losing their job, pre-empting other people to come in and take over – I think it’s very unfair. It’s not right, it’s not ethical and I don’t think it’s professional, to tell you the truth. Interviewers aren’t there to create the news – they are there to report the news.
“It’s not the interviewers place to ask those type of questions either. They want to be the story rather than the manager who is there defending his team, defending his tactics, defending the result or defending himself. They shouldn’t have to defend themselves all the time when things are not going well. What you’re going to do is end up rubbing people up the wrong way and we’ll end up not speaking.”
Celtic’s performances after the January defeat to Rangers at Ibrox raised the possibility of the team going into freefall. It will feel like scant consolation that there has been some stability restored with recent results given the size of the chasm that separates Celtic from Steven Gerrard’s side but there has been an indication that there is some fight left.
The expectancy is that there are a sizeable number who will not be at the club next season with a restructure anticipated but for the here and now there is a need to delay what feels increasingly inevitable for as long as possible.
“You do learn about certain individuals and how they cope with adversity,” said Lennon. “It is always a good sign when they come out on the other side of it. We still have a lot of work to do and a lot of improvements to make but it is not the unmitigated disaster that everyone makes it out to be and we want to finish the season as strongly as possible and see where that takes us.
“We’re looking at every game on its own merit. We’re not setting targets. We’re looking at the next game against Ross County on Sunday evening. They are fighting for their lives and we can’t afford to drop points. We need to try and keep our run going and not worry about what’s going on elsewhere. If we take it to beyond the split, then so be it.
“They [the players]do show a lot of mental strength. To be successful here year in, year out you need to be of a certain temperament and be able to take the rough with the smooth. We are seeing that now with the good groove and it takes a bit of character to do that. They haven’t given up on anything and I am not surprised by the run we are on at the minute. It is only five games and they are capable of a lot more so we are looking for a lot more.”
Greg Taylor has shown some of that character after returning to the team. The fullback lost his place to Diego Laxalt but has since reclaimed that spot and currently boasts the second-highest number of assists for Celtic this term.
“He has a great attitude,” said Lennon. “He has been very consistent of late and he is a really good footballer. He has a good mentality and a great appetite for the game. There is room for improvement in him but he will be delighted with that stat because he works really hard at his game. He has played very well and he knows there is a big year ahead with the Euros and he wants to maintain that position within the squad if he can. I’m sure he will be pleased with his performances. “